Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What's the big idea?

People always ask writers where they get their ideas, and I think there's a simple and a not so simple answer to this one. The simple one is: practice. Anyone who makes themselves write every day is going to get good at coming up with and cultivating ideas. Most of us always have an eye out for a funny story, or an odd image, or a theme suggested by an anthology. Over the years, we all train ourselves to strip an idea down to its most essential components, and then fit it into the structure of a story. We learn tricks like taking two seemingly unrelated ideas and playing them off each other. We learn to spot what kinds of ideas would make a great A plot versus a B plot, and then switch them around for the challenge.

But there's a difficult answer too, and it's probably what most people who ask the question are digging for. How do you find the ideas that you're excited about? That you must write? Before I share my answer, I have a funny story. My friend and writer's group-mate Walter Jon Williams used to wake up in the middle of the night having dreamt the most amazing dream ever, but he'd invariably drift off to sleep again and by morning he couldn't remember it. The feeling that he'd had this incredible idea that just set his creativity on fire was all that was left. So, he put a pen and paper on his nightstand and one night, woke up with one of his world shattering ideas and managed to remember the pen and paper. He jotted down his dream, fell back to sleep, and in the morning woke up excited. He grabbed the piece of paper and looked at what he'd written and it was, (not making this up, you can ask Walter):

UFOs are actually made out of bread.

The point of that story, aside from making you laugh, is that even a writer as experienced and accomplished as Walter, with his many awards and decades long career, will go out of his way to get the idea. He's surely got enough story ideas to fill several careers, given he's practiced coming up with them for most of his life. Yet there are ideas and ideas. The former can make perfectly good, even great stories. The latter won't leave you alone until you pour out your soul onto the page - which sometimes results in a great story, but without enough training in how to write will result in a mediocre, incomprehensible mess. Hence one purpose of practicing your writing skills is to be primed and ready to make those rare ideas shine.

Mine sneak in through the back door. I lay bait for them by thinking of something that I want. A certain feeling that a book gave me, for example, and then I ruminate about it and get frustrated and write a bunch of random scenes and make up characters that don't really click for me, and then, after several days to a few weeks, one of those ideas usually comes together, and it often has nothing to do with what I was originally looking for. Most of my sales, though, come from these ideas, and this in part explains why I didn't start selling stories until relatively recently, even though I graduated from Clarion West a decade ago. I used to work hard on ideas, honing my craft and execution and I got a lot of positive feedback and rejection letters that told me I was close. It was when I started laying bait for ideas that the sales started. I used to provide my most polished, overworked piece to my writer's group in New Mexico. More recently, I dashed off a rough draft of a story with an idea for my writers group, heard them chew it over and worry it to shreds, and came away with an idea, which might or might not have anything to do with what they'd said.

So the question I ask is, how to you find your ideas, as opposed to the regular run of the mill ideas that you've got a million of?


  1. I would love to read a story about ufos made out of bread. I'm still grinning.

    Like you, ideas happen all the time. IDEAS tease me, and if I ignore them they gnaw on my kneecaps until I write them out, revise them into submission, and then they finally curl up at my feet and purr.

  2. So most of my big ideas are really an amalgam of small ideas. I'll have a weird thought one day and jot it down. Sometime later I'll think of a cool character. I jot him/her down. Then maybe I'll have a what if moment one day. I write everything down because eventually I have an ah-hah moment when everything comes together and I have a must write story in my head.

  3. A lot of my ideas come from my husband and children. The other night I was brainstorming a farce I'm working on and I told my husband, "I need a paranormal romance with some kind of standard, run-of-the-mill monster that hasn't been used yet." And that night after the lights were out we were still working out the details of how 3000 year old mummies had infiltrated society, were about to restore the Egyptian empire, and a hunky undead teenager who used to be a palace guard was about to go head-over-heels for a modern-day high school girl.

    Remember, I said this was a farce. If any of you want to write that novel seriously, though, you can have it. I bet it would sell.

  4. @Rebecca That would totally sell. I'm just sayin...
    This is a great post, and I'm not sure where the ideas come from that are Ideas with a capital 'I'. I haven't been down the road long enough to see a pattern, but I'm going to start looking for one today. Thanks! :)

  5. I love the way you separate ideas from 'the idea' - it's so true. How do they come? One came from a dream, (and yes, I can totally picture the Pillsbury dough-boy aliens) another from an inane desire to fit a certain category - never do that! But most of the good ones come from normal everyday activities spurring a 'what if' or 'how come it's not this way' moments. I love bouncing them off my husband and kids. They are great reality checkers. Great post!

    And Rebecca, you might just want to hang onto that idea. It's a really good one! (I love the first The Mummy movie)

  6. I don't think paranormal romance is my thing. Of course I could always give it a try.

    New ideas often come from trying something new!

  7. I'm not sure how to peg this one down with one simple hit. Sometimes a simple thought can trigger an entire novel. Maybe an image?

    IE: the little cupids from the movie Night at the Museum II? Just them alone struck an novel that I completed weeks later.

    Odd, isn't it?

    My stories are jotted with basic inspiring ideas that fall on the ground at a full gallop.

    Great post!!!

    ♥ Elizabeth ♥

  8. I don't really know where My ideas come from either. I don't really have to work hard to come up with one, or wait for one, or even pay attention to one when it comes. I have a big pile of ideas for stories that I haven't started yet, and more pop into my head every day. I reject most of them, but some ideas stick.
    (Plus, I do that wake up in the middle of the night and think I have a great idea thing. It's really funny going through my old notebooks and reading what I wrote. Or painful in some cases.)


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